The Two Faces of Social Business

Co-evolution has always played an important role in the history of humankind, specially when it comes to the complex relationships existing between technology and social behaviors. The social tools sweeping over the web and entering at increasing pace into our organizations are no exception. But evolution is neither linear, nor always a positive-sum game. Social business, in its present acceptation of defining a new way to get work done, might actually have reached a crossroad.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” This famous quote from Archimedes illustrates the dual nature of technological evolution: while giving a theoretical and scientific framework to the lever, he invented pulley systems allowing the handling of up to then unbelievable weight, but also the catapult, one of the first mass destruction weapons. From invention of fire to nuclear fission, whether it be through disruptive progress or through incremental adaptation, technological innovation has always been a curse as well as a blessing.

Every light comes with a shade

2.0 technologies are no exception. Each day comes with its load of dithyrambic articles about how the social web is transforming our reality, driving empathy, making the world and organizations better places. How cool. How wrong. Social technologies have the potential to transform our world for better, but also for worse. Empathy might turn into hate in a snap, or be actively used in psychological manipulation of crowds and individuals. Every light comes with a shade. I am not talking here about reputation crisis or so-called social media disasters, which repeatedly sustain the content of so many “marketing” blogs, and usually result from unsustainable product positioning or from some employees’ childish behavior, but about a stronger, deeper threat to the social web potential: a call to the dark side of the human mind.

Time to walk the talk

Failing to taking this threat into account, while keeping on focusing on social media blunders to claim that social technologies are transforming the world is not only stupid, but harmful, when the very same attitude enters the business realm.

Tangible evolution of the nature of work, and actual transformation of organizational structure, mostly exist for now in marketing hot air. Things change slowly, and by far require more of a culture switch than simple tools’ adoption. As Mark Tamis judiciously pinned out (in French), Social Business (as now defined by IBM) is in fact much closer to the original definition of Enterprise 2.0 than it is to the collaborative enterprise described by Esteban Kolsky, or to the Wirerarchy envisioned by Jon Husband. Changing the terminology doesn’t make the smoke screen any thinner.

‘Taskization’ of the conversation

Furthermore, tools, like Salesforce Chatter, or more recently Tibbr, are appearing which allow for direct integration of business applications outcomes into social platforms. I am convinced that socialization of business processes is not a meaningful track toward social business, but the real treat stands elsewhere. Tibbr allows people to choose which information they want to receive, and when they want it delivered in the middle of their conversation stream. Although this might (for some) look like a great idea, how de you think such a feature would be used in the vast majority of companies, for which ‘becoming a social business‘ (to quote IBM’s words) merely means throwing tools to employees without relinquishing their traditional command-and-control structure? What would it mean to those businesses focusing on process-based productivity, workforce optimization and costs reduction?

You know the answer: such tools will give managers new opportunities to control their teams’ workflow, in real time, new ways to tie workers to their tasks. In a world where not answering an email ten minutes after receiving it is considered as an error, there won’t be any more excuse not to check outputs from ERP every half an hour. Conversations will turn into more interruptive tasks, empowerment will turn into less self-organization opportunities. The dark side of business exists, it is alive and well.

Social business offers businesses a major opportunity for redefining the nature of work and the structure of companies, freeing knowledge workers from organizational-only pressure and defining a new social contract between customers, workers, firms and their ecosystem. On a dark side, it also gives companies novel ways to enforce business-as-usual and to further exploit the outdated legacy of our industrial era. People-centric or IT-centric, the use of social technologies for enterprise is at a crossroad, and it might be time to face it without self-indulgence.

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3 Responses to The Two Faces of Social Business

  1. Your observations about the use of 2.0 in business is fascinating. There is a yin/yang here – kind of left brain/right brain in how business approaches IT. You’re right that so many tools like ERP have become very left brain/BPM/industrial/IT-centric. So, many seem to see social networking as an extension of this ethic rather than as enabling creativity, customer engagement, collaboration etc.

    Marshall McLuhan suggested that it does no good to provide value judgements on technology change. There has been a reaction to every new medium – it will destroy society as we know it. (Written language, printing press, telephone, automobile, PC, video games, television, rock and roll etc.)

    It’s early days in determining what the 2.0 effects will be. There is a lot of noise because one tends to react to a new medium as if it was an extension of the previous. (i.e horseless carriage, wireless). Political polarization may not be an effect of 2.0, but rather using 2.0 as one would talk radio. The same mistake can be made by viewing Enterprise 2.0 as an extension of ERP,.

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Thanks Doug. You’re right when saying that we project our current / old thinking into new technologies, mostly to avoid disruption in business, which is basically built as a huge funnel. We shouldn’t provide value judgments, but judgment itself is embedded into our organizational structures and the tools which run them.

      This isn’t management’s fault; who would hire an executive to challenge the way a company operates? (oups, I am not standing up for management every day, but I believe it). The whole IT business is running on a wrong/outdated paradigm: the notion of “project” is broken, as it doesn’t allow for being people-centric. When Jeff Bezos invented the “1-click ordering”, he was able to envision it because he reversed the build-design-run logic.

      Social technologies for enterprise are too much of a vendors’ affair, while apps like twitter or twitter are fully user-centric, built from a user point of view. Still a long way to go…

  2. Pingback: The Two Faces of Social Business | Sonnez en cas d’absence | Whats going on!

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